Illustrations for the New Missal

Yesterday CTS Catholic Compass made public one of the illustrations it will be using in the new version of the Roman Missal. It’s taken from the lovely Ingeborg Psalter and you can look at it here. As a humble book designer myself, I entirely agree with one of the comments, that being from a book of similar proportions, it will make a better illustration than a scaled-down altar-piece or fresco. As a lapsed medievalist, I also agree that the illustration is in itself perfectly lovely and modern printing methods will allow it to be reproduced with an accuracy and brilliance impossible even twenty years ago. So, why do I have a niggle?

The Ingeborg Psalter represents talent in the service of religion, something which transcends time and place, but, as you can see from the illustration, is also very much the product of a particular time and place. I believe that our own generation is capable of producing art that is both faith-filled and beautiful, and part of me is sorry that the missal editors have not sought out some contemporary artist to illustrate its pages. I don’t subscribe to the view that all contemporary art is ugly and brutal. I do subscribe to the view that our churches and everything in them should be the best we are capable of. A beautiful medieval psalter is a safe choice but is it the best choice? What do you think?


9 thoughts on “Illustrations for the New Missal”

  1. Perhaps it is wise to use traditional and much loved imagery in a new version of the Missal. To link ancient and modern may be a comfort to the many who find change difficulty : modern imagery and modern text a step too far.

    However in general I do so agree on commissioning contemporary artists. Here in Norfolk an abstract painter was given a residency at the Julian Shrine and the works created are truly inspiring.

  2. The 12th century illustrations are beautiful, but I think they belong best in the medieval psalter from which they come. If the opportunity has not be taken to use at least some contemporary art in a modern prayer book the impression is given that Christianity belongs in the past rather than also in the now.

  3. It would be a good idea to choose illustrations from as many periods as possible, to convey the universality of the liturgy across time as well as space.

  4. The illustrations are beautiful, and one could certainly have done worse. And better beautiful, reverent traditional illustrations than something modern that is vulgar.

    On the other hand, it’s worth recalling that when the illustrations were first made, they were contemporary: made by contemporary artists using the artistic vocabulary that was contemporary to their time.

    When I look at the art in our parish church, which was built in the 1930s, I see that the figures mimic the artistic vocabulary of medieval times (e.g., Jesus wears a long robe and has long hair), but the drawings and compositions strongly show the influence of Art Deco. They’re beautiful and reverent, but also very much of their time. Their timeliness, their being of their own time and place, makes them all the more timeless for me.

    I’m not sure, though, that we believers today could handle a modern artist who was truly in the medieval tradition. For example, in the Art Institute of Chicago has a crucifixion scene by Lucas Cranach, in which the soldiers who are standing guard by the Cross and tossing dice for Jesus’ clothes are dressed like German Landsknecht – that is, wearing the armor and uniforms of soldiers of the artist’s time and nation. Maybe the artist was making a statement, or maybe that form was the only visual representation of “soldier” that the people of his milieu would recognize: I just don’t know. But I have to wonder: Would we accept a crucifixion scene in which the soldiers standing guard by the Cross were carrying M-16s and wearing the uniforms of the US Army or the Royal Marines? No doubt the art critics of the left would applaud, but would we believers accept something that said that vividly that *we* are the ones who are crucifying Him? I have my doubts. Better stick with the safe choice of safe art filled with safe images from long ago.

  5. Trained as a medievalist, I find the illustrations both beautiful and a little unsettling. I think I am in a “niggle” myself — even as I find modernIZATION troubling in other ways. FWB above is right, however, in pointing to the art nouveau elements — so the images ARE transformed and transformative. So in the end (for the little it’s worth) I will speak up on their behalves.

  6. Myself, I have a great love and admiration for the religious art of the Medieval period, an prefer most traditional religious art over contemporary. In times past the greatest artists produced lasting masterpieces. Religion was central to everything. It was a time when art was very much in the service of religion. That no longer is the case and the greatest art today is in service, not of religion, but of itself: art for art’s sake. Unfortunately, I don’t see that anything today approaches the achievements of religious art of the past.

    That said, D. Werburg’s depiction of the ‘Annunciation’, presented in this blog’s recent post of Mar 25, is masterful, but I think is the exception to the rule of contemporary religious art.

    I think this is less a resistance to what is new, or different, but that contemporary religious art, for the most part, is not great art.

  7. All very interesting. Thank you. I wonder how many were struck, as I was, by the incorrectly placed red ‘T’ on the facing page? Typography is not a lost art any more than painting or sculpture, but it is amazing how we see or don’t see. (I never see my own typos!)

  8. I do see the point you are making about the safe choice, and I do agree that all contemporary art need not be ugly or brutal.

    However, using mediaeval art makes the connection that we are all in the Communion of Saints; that the believers of the past are our fellow-Christians and that there is a continuity of worship and belief.

    Also, I greatly fear that a contemporary rendition would rush from the Scylla of brutality to the Charbydis of ‘relevance’ and we’d get, in the example of the Annunciation above, two females of variant ethnicites, probably located in a Third World setting – a favela, shanty town or even rubbish dump for choice – and open to the accusations of poverty tourism as it would be felt necessary to hammer us over the head with making the points about social justice.

    To the exclusion of the mystery of the Incarnation, which is that God became Man.

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